Sallekhana, also known as santhara, samadhi-marana or sanyasana-marana,is a religious vow practised amongst Jains. It is the religious practice of voluntarily fasting to death by gradually reducing the intake of food and liquids.It is viewed in Jainism as the thinning of human passions and the body, and another means of destroying rebirth-influencing karma by withdrawing all physical and mental activities.It is not considered as a suicide by Jain Scholars because it is not an act of passion, nor does it deploy poisons or weapons. After the Sallekhana vow, the ritual preparation and practice can extend into years.
Sallekhana is a vow available for both Jain ascetics as well as householders.Historical evidences suggest Sallekhana was observed by both men and women, including queens, in Jain history. However, in the modern era, death through Sallekhana has been a relatively uncommon event amongst Jains.
There is a strong debate about this practice from a right to life and a freedom of religion viewpoint. In 2015, the Rajasthan High Court banned the practice, considering it a suicide. Later that year,however, the Supreme Court of India stayed the decision of the Rajasthan High Court and lifted the ban on Sallekhana.
Sallekhana means to properly ‘thin out’, or ‘slender’ the passions and the body through gradually abstaining from food and drink.It is described as “facing death voluntarily through fasting”. According to Jain texts, Sallekhana leads to Ahimsa (non-violence or non-injury), as a person observing Sallekhana subjugates the passions, which are the root cause of Ahimsa (injury or violence).
Sallekhana is a respected practice in the Jain Community. In 1955, Acharya Shantisagar, a Digambara monk took the vow because of his inability to walk without help and his weak eye-sight. In 1999, Acharya Vidyanand, another Digambara monk, took a twelve-year-long vow.
Between 1800 and 1992, at least 37 instances of Sallekhana have been recorded in Jain literature. There were 260 and 90 recorded Sallekhana deaths among Svetambara and Digambara Jains respectively between 1993 and 2003. On an average about 240 Jains practice Sallekhana each year in India. Most of them are not recorded or noticed. Statistically, Sallekhana is undertaken both by men and women of all economic classes and among the educationally advanced Jains. It is observed more often by women than men.
Jain texts make a clear distinction between the Sallekhana and suicide.Its dualistic theology differentiates between soul and matter. Soul is reborn in the Jain belief based on accumulated karma, how one dies contributes to the karma accumulation, and a pious death reduces the negative karmic attachments.The preparation for Sallekhana must begin early, much before the approach of death, and when death is imminent, the vow of Sallekhana is observed by progressively slenderising the body and the passions.